Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that researchers are working on a modified method of biobutanol production, which could make the fuel more competitive with ethanol as a clean-burning alternative to fossil fuels.

The fuel, which can be made from feedstocks such as wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover or switchgrass, can be transported in existing pipelines, is less corrosive and less prone to water contamination, can be used alone or mixed with gasoline in internal combustion engines, and has more energy per gallon than ethanol.

Biobutanol fuel was made from fermented sugars, such as that found in corn or molasses, up until the mid-20th century, but low yields, high recovery costs and the increased availability of petroleum following World War II sidelined its production. Currently, biobutanol is used mainly as an industrial solvent and is predominantly produced from petrochemicals.

In 2006, DuPont and BP announced joint plans to operate a plant in the U.K. to produce the fuel from sugar beets. Researchers at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois were working with new ways of fermenting glucose and other sugars from corn, but have switched to wheat straw and other non-food sources.

Early tests suggest that, if scaled up further, the new process could yield 307 combined kilograms of acetone, biobutanol and ethanol from one ton of wheat straw. Efforts are under way to develop genetically modified bacteria that will make only biobutanol. The researchers plan to scale up production levels in 2009 and then assess the economics of the method.

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